Recent attempts by Vice President Dick Cheney and his “neo-conservative” allies to conjure up a nuclear threat from Iran as “justification” for military action have been exposed as a charade by timely leaks to the Washington Post. In a redux of President George W. Bush’s spin on the “grave and gathering” danger from Iraq, Cheney protégé and newly appointed U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is on record warning that Iranian “deception” must not be allowed to continue much longer: “It will be too late. Iran will have nuclear weapons.”
But not for ten more years, according to sources close to the U.S. intelligence community who are quoted in Tuesday’s lead story in the Post. Several government officials with access to the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran have told journalist Dafna Linzer of its main judgments. In doing so, Linzer’s sources seem determined not to sit idly by as our country is misled once again into a war favored only by “neo-conservatives” in Washington and their counterparts in the far-right Likud government in Israel, who have a shared vision of remaking the map of the Middle East.
Linzer has shown commendable tenacity on Iran and the nuclear issue—tenacity highly unusual by today’s lax media standards. According to Linzer’s sources, the National Intelligence Estimate states that, while there are credible signs that the Iranian military is doing some clandestine work, there is no information to connect that work directly to a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, U.N. inspectors have found no convincing proof that Iran is conducting a nuclear weapons program or that it has a nuclear warhead design.
The NIE concludes that Iran will not be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon until “early to mid-next decade.” Linzer’s sources put the timeline closer to 2015.
Devotees of Preemption
The exposure of these intelligence judgments is extremely well timed. It comes amid rumors that Vice President Cheney (yes, Vice President Cheney) has ordered up contingency plans for a large-scale air assault on Iran using not only conventional weapons but also tactical nuclear weapons to take out hardened underground nuclear facilities. The action would be framed as a response to a terrorist act—whether sponsored by Iran or not—on the United States. According to former CIA operative Philip Giraldi, senior Air Force officers involved in the planning are appalled that Iran is being set up for an unprovoked attack but, sadly, no one wants to jeopardize a career by posing objections.
Sound familiar? Shades of the obeisance so prevalent among the martinet generals whom Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has promoted, or called out of retirement. These salute smartly and blindly follow the diktat of civilian officials with no military experience. Small wonder that Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, with two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star from his service in Vietnam, has complained openly that they are “disconnected from reality…and just making it up as they go along.” And, in the worst of military traditions, the generals do go along to get along. Shades, also, of Vietnam.
Cheney once again has been leading the public charge, just as he did in 2002 in the lead up to invading Iraq. On the morning of Inauguration Day 2005 on MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning, Cheney warned that Iran has “a fairly robust new nuclear program.” And, he added, it sponsors terrorism. Sound familiar?
The vice president added that Iran’s “objective is the destruction of Israel.” Imus then brought up the possibility of preempting Iran, asking, “Why don’t we make Israel do it?” Cheney responded:
Well, one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant capability, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.
Four weeks later President Bush elaborated on Cheney’s remarkably nonchalant remark:
Clearly, if I was the leader of Israel and I’d listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I’d be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well. And, in that Israel is our ally (sic)—and in that we’ve made a very strong commitment to support Israel—we will support Israel if her security is threatened.
This all fits in with Cheney’s undisguised personal view of the time Israel did ‘take out’ a fledgling nuclear weapons program of a hostile neighbor. Despite the official position of the United States (and the unanimous U.N. Security Council vote) condemning the Israeli preemptive attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, Cheney saw fit to refer to the Israel attack approvingly in his speech on Iraq on August 26, 2002—the keynote speech for the PR campaign for war on Iraq. Earlier, as defense secretary in 1991, Cheney reportedly gave Israeli Maj. Gen. David Ivri, then the commander of the Israeli Air Force, a satellite photo of the Iraqi nuclear reactor destroyed by U.S.-built Israeli aircraft. On the photo Cheney penned, “Thanks for the outstanding job on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981.”
Will this new, apparently reality-based NIE on Iran influence the actions of the White House? Linzer points out that a number of less ambitious papers on Iran, ordered up during Bush’s first term “were rejected by advocates of policies that were inconsistent with the intelligence judgments.” In 2002, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley commissioned one such paper on the possibility of “regime change” in Iran. The paper concluded that Iran seemed to be on a slow march to democracy, cautioned against U.S. interference in the process, and thus became material fit only for the shredder.
Bush is more likely to take his “intelligence” from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who, according to George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, has our current president “wrapped around his little finger.” (For harboring such thoughts, Scowcroft was unceremoniously removed from his key position as chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board early this year.)
It went little noticed that during Sharon’s visit to Crawford last April, he had his senior military aide, Gen. Yoav Galant, present satellite photos and other Israeli intelligence on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, showing it to be at a “very advanced” stage. American officials told reporters at the time that Sharon and Galant had laid out “the worst case scenario.” In July 2003, Sharon and Galant gave a similar performance in the oval office, reportedly showering Bush with data from a thick dossier on Iran’s covert program.
Two unorthodox suggestions:
• Let the White House invite Iranian officials to present Iran’s dossier on Israeli nuclear weapons estimated to number around 200—not ten years away, but already deployed. (Would it not be wise to give the president a balanced picture? Has there been no recent NIE on Israel’s weapons of mass destruction? If so, could the principal judgments be make public?)
• Ask John Bolton to explain to his new colleagues at the U.N. why it is that Washington is allergic to the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons ten years hence, while it views with equanimity those already stockpiled in, say, Pakistan and India, nations which—like Israel—have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran, in contrast, is party to the treaty; hence the regular U.N. inspections there.
Why is the outrage of the Bush administration so selective? A clue to the bill of goods that has been sold to the president himself is found in own remarks on those rare occasions on which he answers questions from the press, as he did on February 17:
Question: “What’s your level of concern that, if Iran does go down the road to building a nuclear weapon, that Israel will attack Iran to try to prevent that from happening?”
Answer: “Well, of course the — well, first of all, Iran has made it clear they — they don’t like Israel, to put it bluntly. And the Israelis are concerned about whether or not Iran develops a nuclear weapon, as are we, as should everybody.”
Will the Press, Congress Wake Up?
No one should expect the White House to do anything but obfuscate the conclusions of the latest NIE on Iran. Already, administration officials have told the press that they remain certain of Iran’s nuclear intentions and the need to confront Iran urgently. Much will depend on whether our cowardly mainstream press and cowed Congress can awake from their stupor to do their job. It was highly edifying to learn in today’s New York Times that House committee chair Tom Davis (R-VA) is hot on the trail of baseball star Rafael Palmeiro on the suspicion he misled Congress on using steroids. Is no committee chair in Congress interested in looking into whether the White House misled us into war with Iraq—and may be preparing a redux vis-à-vis Iran?
As has been abundantly clear in the case of Iraq, Vice President Cheney feels no threat from the Republican-led Congress. Nor, as we have seen, does he feel at all bound by U.S. intelligence, unless he can put in enough appearances at CIA headquarters to slant the intelligence in the desired direction. This time he is likely to dismiss the new NIE on Iran, exaggerating—as he is fond of doing—the less-than-stellar performance of earlier U.S. estimates regarding how far along the Iraqi nuclear program was before the Gulf War in 1991.
And then there is John Bolton who makes no bones about his devotion to a faith-based approach to intelligence and to a prerogative to override intelligence professionals at will. During his confirmation hearings, amid countless credible charges that he had politicized intelligence, he had the chutzpah to write to the committee that he reserves the right to “state his own reading of the intelligence.” No matter if he persuades no one on the urgency of the threat from Iran. Even though British Prime Minister Tony Blair will resist going along with an attack on Iraq, the US will not be alone. There is always Israel…and Fiji.
Is There Hope?
Well, yes. Think of it:
• Finally, a National Intelligence Estimate not cooked to high policy;
• Patriotic truth tellers unwilling to remain silent while another unprovoked war is brewing;
• Gutsy reporters like Dafna Linzer in the mold of Watergate’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (before he donned a tie and became Bush’s court historian); and
• A Washington Post editor who put Linzer’s piece where it deserved to be—as lead article. (Let’s hope it wasn’t just a case of summer substitute help.)
A Leak in Time…
You readers out there in the intelligence and policy communities may wish to take those who told Linzer about the NIE as your model. IF, (and, admittedly, it is a big IF) the press and Congress do wake up, this latest disclosure will make it more difficult for the Bush White House and/or Israel to launch war on Iran. And this is because the disclosures of the NIE judgments came early enough.
Think of the now-public minutes of Tony Blair’s briefing at Downing Street on July 23, 2002. Or, closer to home, the insights in the books of Paul O’Neil and Richard Clarke. These exposed the multiple deceits “justifying” the march of folly into Iraq, and even showed the real reasons behind the war. But too late to stop it.
I do not share the cynical view that O’Neil and Clarke bowed to their publishers’ wishes that they wait to speak out until their books were ready. Pentagon Papers revealer Dan Ellsberg has lamented the fact that, had he gone public in 1963 with what he knew, the Vietnam War might have been nipped in the bud. Asked why he did not make his move earlier, Ellsberg says it simply never occurred to him. I believe that was probably the case with O’Neil and Clarke as well.
Between multiple sources in London and in Washington finally willing to see it as their patriotic duty to speak out to prevent war, we have a new, very hopeful truth-driven process in train less than a year after the Truth Telling Coalition gave it fresh impetus.
And if the disclosures on Iran put a steel rod in the wheels of the juggernaut rolling toward war against Iran, that would be preemption of what would certainly have been a disaster even worse than Iraq.
Reminder to Patriotic Truth Tellers: Timing makes all the difference.
RAY McGOVERN works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his 27-year career as a CIA analyst, he chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared/briefed the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
A shorter version of this article appeared first on TomPaine.com.